Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Without getting too much into it, because at this point its painfully boring....I wanted to share something that has come up recently because I decided to join an online dating site. It is great in many ways, but mostly ridiculous. It has however, forced me to acknowledge that all things aside (because all stakes are aside on the internet), there are a few ultimate, non negotiable literary deal breakers for me. Certain authors, books, ideas will make me click away from a page faster than you can say deux ex machina.
1. Chuck Palahniuk
Explanation: Maybe you read him in high school and thought it was really profound and shocking and so deep. Maybe even on a certain level you engaged with his sick and challenging portrayal of contemporary masculinity. However, no one past the age of 17 should respond to these stories. So the conclusion is, you haven't read anything since you were 17 (which is fine, just be up front) or you have awful taste anyway or you hate women.
2. Ayn rand
Explanation: Not Neccessary
3. Catcher in the Rye
Explanation: A variation on #1, if this still resonates with you more than anything you've read since, you aren't paying attention.
There are the obvious dissuasive markers of bad taste: "books?", Dan Brown, Bukowski, Fante...but nothing approaches deal breaker status quite like those three.
What are yours???
Posted by Stacy at 4:42 PM
Friday, September 2, 2011
In an email exchange with a new friend this week, I was reinvigorated with regards to Anne Carson. We talked about Decreation, its intense loneliness and yearning and maddening detachment. She is maddening not only due to ability to take herself out of the moment but also her penchant for intellectualizing the emotional. We all do this, sometimes its easier, sometimes its safer but it is no less real. Carson exists in a world of overwhelming literary inheritance, a swirling vortex of heavy ideas from the past. She has crafted a body of work that elevates criticism and critical engagement to formative work, art in its own right. She amazes me.
Monday, August 22, 2011
"The girl would slip into the forest, nocturnal, still as bark, when Palipana died ... She had already cut one of his phrases into the rock, one of the first things he had said to her, which she had held onto like a raft in her years of fear. She had chiselled it where the horizon of water was, so that, depending on tide and pull of the moon, the words in the rock would submerge or hang above their reflection or be revealed in both elements ... He had once shown her such runes, finding them even in his blindness, and their marginalia of ducks, for eternity. So she carved the outline of ducks on either side of his sentence. In the tank at Kaludiya Pokuna the yard-long sentence still appears and disappears. It has already become a legend. But the girl who stood waist-deep and cut it into rock in the last week of Palipana's dying life and carried him into the water beside it and placed his hand against it in the slop of the water was not old. He nodded, remembering the words. And now he would remain by the water and each morning the girl undressed and climbed down against the wall of submerged rock and banged and chiselled, so that in the last days of his life he was accompanied by the great generous noise of her work as if she were speaking out loud. Just the sentence. Not his name or the years of his living, just a gentle sentence once clutched by her, the imprint of it now carried by water around the lake."
Michael Ondaatje is just one of those writers, he creeps under your skin in his subtlest of moments and waits to hit you with the most perfect line of prose you have ever read at the novel's emotional climax. He consistently creates instances of unbelievably grand high drama (recall the English Patient or In the Skin of a Lion - whew!), balancing the narrative on the most precarious of precipices, between a gorgeous and highly articulate style and the demands of a quick, interesting plot. Somehow he saves himself from melodrama and parody. (P.S. He can also act as a fantastic gateway drug for literary fiction....my mother loved the English Patient and I convinced her to read In the Skin of a Lion based on this alone) I have to admit, I have been waiting to read this novel for a long time. I devour his books and it helps to space them out, there is little more upsetting for wanting the voice of a specific author and having no new material!
Anil's Ghost is his fifth novel and in many ways his most subdued. Although it does use multiple shifts in narrative tone, focus and point of view, there is a consistent skeletal structure to the plot. The novel revolves around Anil Rissera, a Sri Lankan expatriate and forensic anthropologist who has returned to Sri Lanka to work on a United Nations project devoted to identifying bodies. Assigned to work with an anthropologist, Sarath, who she (and we) are never fully allowed to trust, she discovers a skeleton on a government site and begins to investigate (or attempt to) who this man was and at whose hands he died. In their attempts to identify him, they come to rely on an artist whose craft lies in painting the eyes of idols. Ondaatje firmly puts the task of truth telling in the hands of the artist, giving his interpretive act evidenciary value. Accurately captured is the pervasive sense of fear and paranoia that monopolizes the actions and reactions of a population immersed in multiple civil conflicts for decades. His characters are entrenched in a kaleidoscopic array of moral ambiguities, choosing by both profession and ethical imperative to confront horror and persist. Anil's Ghost attempts the most difficult of writerly tasks, the balance between the plot and character that tilts so many novels into forgettable territory. Gradually we learn details of the lives of our characters, Anil's love affairs, Sarath's wife and Gamini's tragic loneliness, but it all comes after the impact of the plot has already dominated your reading of the novel. In the attempt to create an emotional unity between the characters at the climactic moment, we are given a bit too little too late, relegating the characters to proxies for Ondaatje's larger moral arguments. I found myself wanting to know more, to spend more time with these people, whose depth was never developed beyond their own functionality as plot devices. The most effective and affective moments of the novel are in his signature meandering passages, the dream-like state he produces reminiscent of a slightly more grounded magical realism.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
"A few times in my life I’ve had moments of absolute clarity. When for a few brief seconds the silence drowns out the noise and I can feel rather than think, and things seem so sharp and the world seems so fresh. It’s as though it had all just come into existence.
I can never make these moments last. I cling to them, but like everything, they fade. I have lived my life on these moments. They pull me back to the present, and I realize that everything is exactly the way it was meant to be."
Full disclosure: I saw Tom Ford's film adaptation before reading the novella. In a particularly self indulgent, down in the dumps kind of day - in fact I had just finished reading Hallucinating Foucault as well, deciding that what I needed to get through the day was to envelope myself in impressionistic treatises about loneliness and catharsis. Now, the film is beautiful - in fact at times it feels like a particularly meditative but gorgeous perfume ad. Julianne Moore chain smokes (only) hot pink Fantasia cigarettes, Colin Firth saunters knowingly in a perfectly pressed suit even while in the depths of depression, the colors are saturated and crisp, and the film is littered with moments in which time slows to a standstill and the soundtrack overtakes the dialogue, plunging the viewer into a purely sensory experience that recalls the plodding act of reading. Now...what the film was missing that the novel captures perfectly is frustration, specifically frustration fueled by anger.
The narrative arc of the film puts the protagonist and his loss at the center and (spoilers), takes the viewer through a single day, the day in which he has decided to end his life. Obviously one assumes shifts in tone and focus in an adaptation, but I never expected such a radical departure. The novel never implies suicide, the protagonist is far too engaged and frankly, angry to consider it as an option. While both consider a kind of reexamination of the vitality of life after considerable loss, the novel's vision of George is much more critical and much less maudlin. There is no doubt that George is depressed, his life after the death of his partner is a series of mechanisms with which to get by. Coping mechanisms and familiar but disdainful activities (driving on the freeway, dinner with his best friend who seems to do nothing but annoy him, social niceties with the neighbors) propel him through his life, his awareness acutely punctuated by heightened moments of justifiable anger at the state of the world and his life.
There are also unlikeable moments for George, which typically occur when he feels the most renewed. He defines himself in opposition to a dying acquaintance and his best friend. In these moments, Isherwood becomes almost too delighted to let George revel in his disdain for the female body manifest in his judgement of these two women whose affectations and histories are rendered as almost farcical. George's vitality in the classroom as well as the constantly humming undertone of sexuality in each of his encounters keeps him from becoming the shadow like character represented by the George of Tom Ford's film. Missing too, in Ford's adaptation is the kind of humor that peppers the prose. George's caricatures paint the world in a colorful and ridiculous light; his voice rings through the narrative as somehow the detached observer deigning to comment on the daily lives of those around him. The subtlety of his satire allows Isherwood to never show all of his cards, balancing the reader between political diatribes, tender memorializing, the anger at aging and the frustration of day to day life.
"George smiles to himself, with entire self-satisfaction. Yes, I am crazy, he thinks. That is my secret; my strength."
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
"Whom can I tell that I should not destroy in the telling."
Two novellas, joined thematically and stylistically, Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugial Angel comprise of Angels and Insects. Byatt returns here to familiar territory for her, the world of ideas in contrast with fantastical spiritualism or overwrought romantic love. Both novellas are set within the milieu of Victorian England, evoking not only the intellectual context but also the general "spirit of the age" that dominated cultural output and social interactions. Morpho Eugenia is in some ways a straightforward dramatic, mysterious love story of Victorian sexual indiscretion writ large and in other ways sets itself volumes apart in its evocation of the personal level upon which the upheaval of Darwinian ideas created rifts in the sense of Victorian self.
Our protagonist is William Adamson, an amateur entomologist whose studies and adventures have taken him to all corner of the earth, he embodies the classic colonial adventurer hero, a symbol of sexual and intellectual experience that disrupts the peace of the Alabaster house. Taken in by the Alabaster family, whose patriarch seems to want to have William around as a theoretical sparring partner for a kind of pseudo religious tract concerning Darwin's philosophies, William promptly falls in love with the tragic and beautiful Eugenia. Byatt at times gets away with the kinds of cliches that I would find obnoxious in other works, just by the sheer power of her prose and in the arch way in which she constructs her more ridiculous characters. Adamson himself inspires empathy and admiration while a character like Eugenia reminds one of a far less intelligent and effective Emma Bovary, if only in her last dying moments (Emma's not Eugenia's). She has a wry sense of humor typically embodied by a strong, contrasting female character - in this case Matty Crompton.
The novella spends a good deal of time setting up what seems to me, a largely overemphasized metaphor of the ant queen. Capitalizing upon the naturalist's tendencies of Adamson, Byatt sets forth long and often arduous descriptions of ant colonies.
I have not seen the movie adaptation - although based on the way in which Posession was filmed/ruined, I'm wary. Here is the trailer for your assessment.
The Conjugial Angel stands in stark contrast to the first novella. Still ostensibly concerned with Victorian morality, this time through the lens of spiritualism. Much less of a story than a kind of study on the relationship between the spiritualist impulse and the attachment to poetics, The Conjugial Angel attempts a meditation on mourning and loss through a fictional take off of Tennyson's In Memoriam. While interesting, the story never gets off the ground or finds its tone, never quite expanding from a philosophical distance.
"In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa don't have jobs, so I don't know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there's only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.
Also everywhere I'm looking at kids, adults mostly don't seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don't want to actually play with them, they'd rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there's a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn't even hear."
This book seemed to come out of nowhere, although now that I've read it, it makes perfect sense that its doing so well at this particular moment. The cultural landscape is full of stories both real and fictional of captivity, rape, incest and torture. The fact that this book is sharing shelves with the Jaycee Duggard tell all says it all. While it can be said that we've always been fascinated with these stories (A Child Called It, Flowers in the Attic, Speak etc.), I would argue that the recent fictional fare has taken on a hyper-realism that strikes a far different tone than the melodrama of V.C. Andrews. Room was hesitantly suggested to me by a friend who had read it recently for her company's book club; her caveat was that she would rate this book very highly if classified as a novel for young adults, but less highly if it was considered literary fiction. In this regard I agree with her, although I do think that the task of marrying the framing concept with subtlety and literary prose would be next to impossible.
The novel is focused on Jack, our five year old narrator and his mother. We are introduced to them and their reality - the eleven by eleven room in which they live out their lives, held captive. Jack was born in the room and knows nothing of outside reality. It becomes clear early on that Jack's mother has chosen to create as rich of a reality as she can for Jack, completely obscuring their captivity and containing him within a fantasy of their own construction. The sense of space, both claustrophobic and incredibly expansive depending on the moment is immaculately constructed. In their daily routines and habits, Jack and his mother cover every inch of the room, utilizing every thing they have to its maximum potential. Because part of the beauty of the book is the way in which the plot propels from moment to moment through Jack's raw emotions, this is an instance in which I do not want to reveal too much of the plot except to say that it is fast paced and quite literally riveting.
Despite extraordinary circumstances, many of Jack's emotional responses (while magnified) are familiar in a sense. The comfort of constrictions and the antipathy towards change are juxtaposed by the very real need to change for his mother's sake. We experience not only Jack's difficulties but also his mother's through his eyes - the emotional stakes heightened by his undiluted emotional reactions to her coping mechanisms. The transition of Room to Outside is an overwhelming one; as Jack transitions so too does the reader. There is a dizziness and a dislocation that comes from opening up the world of the novel, the readers already well developed sense of empathy for Jack reaches a level of pathos. Jack also becomes a new lens through which to see everyday reality and interaction, calling into question routine, cultural norms and our standards of behavior.
While the story is purportedly based on the Fritzl case, Donaghue narrows the focus on two characters and remains at all times within the realms of hope. Despite the circumstances, Jack is incredibly intelligent, and as well nourished as possible given the reality. Donaghue avoids the depths of gruesome that she could very well justify in this story, instead choosing to focus intimately on the emotional relationship between Jack and Ma, keeping the narrative in Jack's hands makes this possible. In the absence of Ma getting to speak for herself, her darker moments are expressed through Jack's childlike coping mechanisms; without the option for running, hiding or fighting with his mother, Jack creates his own unique brand of logic with which to deal with complication.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
"Looking downward from an altitude of two thousand feet, the earth assumes order. A town, even Milan, is symmetrical, exact as a small grey honeycomb, complete. The surrounding terrain seems designed by a law more just and mathematical than the laws of property and bigotry: a dark parallelogram of pinewood, square fields, rectangles of sward. On this cloudless day the sky on all sides and above the plane is a blind monotone of blue, impenetrable to the eye and the imagination. But down below the earth is round. The earth is finite. From this height you do not see man and the details of his humiliation. The earth from this distance is perfect and whole."
This is Carson McCullers final novel before her death, and stands as her most uniquely personal and meditative work although nowhere near my favorite of hers. Revisiting familiar themes in her work, isolation, longing, loneliness and the effect of political and social upheaval on the internal lives of Southern folks, she recasts the die in terms of impending death, creating an all the more haunting atmosphere by rendering her usual themes in the light of death as a foregone conclusion. As she does, McCullers sets the scene with characters who are brimming with frustration at their own impotence. In this particular instance we are introduced to the local pharmacist in the small Southern town of Milan, J.T. Malone. He has just been diagnosed with leukemia and told that he may only have months to live - he begins to lash out in anger at the futility of his life. He shuns and ignores his wife, shirks work, maintaining his friendship with Judge Fox Clane most closely.
Judge Fox Clane is also suffering from poor health, the persistent and lonely memory of his dead wife and an inability to deal with shifting social norms and political will. Judge Clane is larger than life, a man of robust appetite and viewpoints. His grandson Jester Clane stands in stark contrast to his grandfather; a progressive breed of Southerner, a sensitive man, and gay. He forms a strong and fervent attachment to his grandfather's amaneunsis Sherman Pew, a blue-eyed black man whose obsession with finding his mother leads him to inventive storytelling. Sherman and Jester exist in that eroticized, antagonistic space familiar to us all, sparring with each other on intellectual as well as personal levels, often leaving one or the other wallowing in embarrassment in the aftermath.
The novel is set on the eve of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, exposing the rawest of nerves with regards to racial politics on the town. Judge Clane is constantly talking about his master plan of cashing in on Confederate money as a form of reparations for the damage done to the South during the Civil War, townspeople are quick tempered when Sherman Pew takes up residence in a part of town inhabited mostly by white people and things turn ugly when it all comes to a head. The long, constant, plodding road towards death works as background for social upheaval; both progressing in spite of those involved. McCullers invokes one of Tolstoy's more famous lines and turns it on its head "Death is always the same, but each man dies in his own way", ironically inverting the sense of tragedy that Tolstoy himself ironically imposed. Sometimes I forget how cheeky she can be.
McCullers addresses her characters in her typical way, delicately placing them in worlds churning with frustration. She keeps a cool distance from them and watches them squirm, forcing you to live through their more acute moments of emotional distress alongside them. Recently I had a long conversation about Carson McCullers with one of my more opinionated friends. He is opinionated in general, which I love but also specifically opinionated about literature, which I love even more. So rarely do I actually get to talk to people about books - even when we disagree vehemently they are cherished conversations. He doesn't like Carson McCullers, feels like her stories are too uncomfortable, too subdued. We had a long conversation that ended up being amazing about the ways in which we ourselves deal with emotion and boredom and powerful moments. It was a testament to how powerful a reader's attachments to literature can be. Anyway, I love McCullers for these very qualities, she creeps up on you like a draft and pulls the rug from under you leaving you feeling exposed, vulnerable and embarrassed not only capturing the emotion but also the response to the emotion. McCullers crafts characters that are simultaneously trying to stifle their emotional truths and constantly wallowing in them. She shatters bravado and self presentation, cutting right through to the lies and disguises we use to hide ourselves.